Scratch your head all you like, but there’s no denying the hypnotic power of the unboxing YouTube video for a generation of digital children. Experts explain - or try to!
Just how popular is the unboxing genre?
38.6 billion popular. (That’s how many times people - mainly very little people - watched the two most popular YouTube unboxing channels last year.)
$22 million popular. (That’s how much the world’s highest paid YouTuber, 8-year-old Ryan Kaji of Ryan ToysReview, earned last year from ads and endorsements.)
If you have a child anywhere from age two on up, you probably know that unboxing videos are crack for kids. But don’t assume that necessarily makes viewing them an addictive, unhealthy pastime.
Leaving aside for a moment the consumerist subtext - which is a big thing to leave aside, given the fact that they function as de facto advertising for toy manufacturers - experts say these slow-paced, kid-centric videos are actually soothing to many children.
Notes one observer, “Unboxing videos are their equivalent of listening to smooth jazz and sipping and espresso.” In other words: instant chill-out.
They’re “so boring,” agrees journalist Rebecca Lang, writing on parenting.com, “yet also so wonderful.”
Some experts have even suggested that the videos have a hypnotic effect on kids, triggering the pleasure centres of the brain - possibly even sparking an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) in certain children - because of the lulling sounds of clicks and crackles and the monotonous narration.
But the real attraction for kids may simply be a kind of vicarious roulette wheel effect - the suspense and surprise factor that leads kids to jump up and down (metaphorically or otherwise), wondering “'what's in it, what’s in it, what’s in it? Oh wow, that’s really cool,'” says Dr. Michael Rich, director and founder of the Center on Media and Child Health at the Boston Children’s Hospital.
“The unboxing trend capitalizes on the anticipation humans have when they want something,” notes Dr. Richard Freed, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. “It’s not as much about the reward as it is the excitement of the reward that can trigger the dopamine.”
They're so boring ... yet also so wonderful"
There’s no doubt that unboxing videos drive toy sales - and in a weird cyclical synergy have even inspired toys, which are then further promoted in videos. The L.O.L. Surprise! doll, a runaway hit with girls 4 to 14 that’s expected to generate earnings of $5 billion in 2019, is an interesting case in point.
The L.O.L Surprise phenomenon - the “identity” of each doll is only revealed when it is unboxed after purchase (a deliberately lengthy process involving seven layers of wrapping) - was directly inspired by the unboxing genre. Now it’s not uncommon for kids to prefer to watch others play with the L.O.L. dolls online, rather than engage directly with their own toys.
Industry expert Jackie Breyer explains that the toys’ massive popularity has been driven by the unboxing craze. She calls them “YouTube bait.”
Breyer told the New York Times that her own 10-year-old daughter performs a voiceover to an imaginary camera when opening her own L.O.L dolls - pretending she’s running her own YouTube channel.
“Kids see YouTubers who are popular and live glamorously,” she explains, “and so for a moment, when they unbox their toys, they can have that experience too.”
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